Srna and Babic a throwback to an outdated style

Masters of wing-back play serve Croatia well - but Kaka exposes a lack of creativity
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The Independent Football

For a country so young in its present incarnation, history is remarkably relevant to Croatia, from a football point of view as much as a political one. It was only 10 years ago that they first appeared at a major championship, but already there are suggestions - from no less a figure than Zvonimir Boban - that they are tactically stuck in the past.

"There is too much reliance on the wing-backs to provide width," the former Milan midfielder said before the tournament began, and yet it was arguably the performances of those two players - Darijo Srna of Shakhtar Donetsk and Marko Babic of Bayer Leverkusen - that so restricted Brazil in their opening match in Berlin.

Boban may yet be proved correct, but the mood after that 1-0 defeat by the world champions was generally positive. Brazil's 4-2-2-2 formation requires their full-backs to push forward to give wide attacking options, but both Cafu and Roberto Carlos found themselves pinned in their own half. As Zico, the Brazilian legend who now coaches Japan, pointed out: "If Kaka were Croatian, Brazil would have lost". Where Boban, part of the great Croatia side that finished third in the 1998 World Cup, is right is in asserting that wing-backs are old-fashioned; there is barely a team outside the Balkans who still employ them. Worryingly for Brazil, just about the only other two major teams who do - Japan and Australia - are also in Group F.

For Australia that is a matter of pragmatism, for Japan an accident of the prevalence of German tactical thinking when the J-League was established, but Babic and Srna are born wing-backs, the latest in a lengthy tradition. The 3-4-1-2 was the Balkan default when Zlatko Kranjcar played for Yugoslavia in the 70s and 80s, and it was still the system used by Croatia at the World Cup in France 98, when Mario Stanic and the implacable Robert Jarni ploughed the flanks.

In 1998, Croatia were blessed with a midfield of extraordinary creativity, with Robert Prosinecki and Aljosa Asanovic lining up alongside Boban. It was a blend that logically should never have worked, but it did, and it has cast a troublesome shadow. The modern Croatia could never - should never - replicate such flair, and yet because the cavalier approach was once successful, there is a demand among fans that it should be employed in perpetuity.

Kranjcar is too wise to be swayed by the argument that what has worked before will necessarily work again. "Croatian football has changed a lot in the last eight years," he said. "Our attacking midfielders have disappeared, so we've had to change our style because we can't knock the ball around like we used to."

After the qualifiers, he even toyed with the idea of adopting a flat back-four before deciding to stick with the tried and trusted. "I believe it's the Croat way to express ourselves," he explained. His central midfield, though, far from shimmering with the sparkle of eight years ago, bristles with muscular intent, Igor Tudor and Niko Kovac providing a platform for the playmaker Niko Kranjcar, Zlatko's son. For all his abundant talent, though, the 21-year-old remains inconsistent; Kaka, sadly, is not Croatian. And that, as Boban said, places great emphasis on the wing-backs.

Perversely, Srna and Babic may find it harder against Japan this afternoon than they did against Brazil. In that opening game, Croatia's emphasis was on defending, and the wing-backs were able to concentrate more on keeping Cafu and Roberto Carlos in check than on any attacking of their own, although Babic's forages occasionally threatened.

"Defeat with honour", to quote the headline of a Zagreb tabloid, may be enough to win plaudits against Brazil, but defeat in Nuremberg this afternoon will mean simply that Croatia are going home. This is when Boban's fears may be realised, when there is an onus on Croatia to attack. Srna, it will not have escaped Zico's notice, was Croatia's joint top-scorer in the qualifiers. His total is inflated by free-kicks and penalties, but his battle down the Croatian right with his Brazilian-born counterpart Alex will none the less be key.

"My problem," Kranjcar said, "has been to take the focus off Brazil, to remind the players that there are two other teams in the group, and we have to beat them. Brazil is over; now we must make our own destiny."